I remember when I first discovered The Young Turks, one of the first online radio shows spearheaded by Cenk Uygur. Uygur and his group of Young Turks immediately struck me as everything that was missing in the mass media: an independent political voice with a tonal distaste for everything establishment.
Consequently, Uygur’s passionate progressivism make for an incredibly attractive, populous message, as evidenced by The Young Turks’ massive online viewership. I wasn’t necessarily surprised he was hired by MSNBC, a company that appears to be experimenting with an establishment-liberal primetime lineup.
But I also wasn’t surprised when MSNBC made the decision to remove him from the spotlight. Uygur is an interesting animal, one who explained the day after his departure that when he’s broadcasting online, he’s “a tiger in the wild.” When inside MSNBC, he’s “a tiger at the zoo.”
Apparently network CEO Phil Griffin thinks so too, and allegedly told Uygur in a private meeting that his “friends in Washington” didn’t like his tone. To the Young Turk who is used to his ultimate right to free speech at ‘Rebel Headquarters’ (the unofficial name of TYT’s website,) this was proof of media corruption. This was “the speech,” he said.
Putting aside Uygur’s opinion on the conditions of his removal from MSNBC’s lineup, his departure means that anyone who hoped that MSNBC would be the cable news network defined by deviation should be disappointed. In fact, MSNBC may have had potential to take on some of the qualities that much of the alternative media has, namely dissenting opinions and values.
Hiring Uygur for the network’s 6pm time slot certainly would’ve been a step in that direction. He consistently challenged power on the air and insistently questioned the political establishment, which is obviously what Griffin’s “friends in Washington” meant by “tone.”
Griffin told the New York Times, however, that his “friends in Washington” were really just producers who were having trouble booking guests for the 6pm show because of Uygur’s fiery disposition. This, of course, isn’t a justification for anything.
In fact, it’s evidence for a long withstanding journalistic filter in which freedom in the media is suppressed: “you have to play along to get along,” as Phil Donahue put it. Saying the right things at the right moments means you get the right guests. MSNBC, whom Griffin allegedly described to Uygur as “the establishment,” simply can’t afford to not use this filter. It’s too important that MSNBC remain “trusted” by the power structures, which happen to have the guests that Griffin’s Washington friends are having so much trouble getting. Losing that trust implies losing some of MSNBC’s own power, so even if Uygur’s audience is growing, maintaining the network’s prestige takes precedence.
The liberal press appears to be asking all the wrong questions and is putting forth a mixed analysis of Uygur’s departure. For example, Chez Pazienza wrote in The Huffington Post that MSNBC “has been precariously walking a fine line between giving its progressive voices the freedom they need…” and “understanding that that freedom will often have them saying and doing things that will make the network’s corporate overlords want to drop a hundred-thousand-pound anvil on the whole place. Again, MS is the establishment…”
Taking Pazienza’s assumption as correct means this has nothing to do with Uygur, and everything to do with the press not being free to sustainably express opinions. In fact, it confirms what Uygur knew before taking his job at MSNBC, which is that the media are incredibly subordinated to external interests. The liberal or conservative bias that its contributors and hosts retain pales in comparison to the fact that the media simply are not free.
The major question for MSNBC was once pretty simple: how will a so-called “progressive” cable news network proceed as a media outlet? By discarding Uygur and therefore silencing a voice of dissent and , MSNBC has answered, and may have removed any notion that it has liberatory potential.